When families encounter difficulties in communication, therapy can be helpful in providing skills and education to help members avoid further misunderstandings and negative dynamics. Sometimes, clients can benefit from learning to use “I-statements” to diffuse defensiveness, or reflective listening to ensure the correct message is being received from the sender. But other patterns of family interactions can create deep wounds and mistrust that can take intense work to remediate.
Three Sides, All Unequal
Triangulation occurs when one family member avoids direct communication with another family member about his/her behavior, choosing instead to communicate with a third member about their concerns. For example, a mother may share her fear and frustration about her husband’s alcoholism with her child, creating a peer-like relationship that requires more from the child than he reasonably can provide. In addition, the mother’s sharing can create fear and anxiety in the child, or the child may feel responsible for “fixing” the situation. Triangulation causes a warp in communication, similar to the childhood game of “telephone,” creating misinformation, distrust and confusion. Roles of parent, child and sibling can be upended, and emotional safety between family members suffers. Because triangulation can feel “rewarding” by providing some members with an inflated sense of power, or others with an “out” for confronting another, this dynamic often becomes entrenched. Counseling allows families to learn the real costs of these patterns, and how to approach one another with respect and honesty. We know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Families learn that communicating directly with one another can bridge the distance between members, facilitating real intimacy and avoiding the woundedness and distress created by triangulation.